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The Benefits of a Ketogenic Diet for the Brain

By Dr. Samantha Larkin, ND- Associate Doctor and Manager of the Spark Health IV Program

The Ketogenic Diet

A ketogenic diet is low in carbs, high in fat and moderate in protein. The body produces ketones for fuel instead of burning sugars and carbohydrates for fuel.

Ketones are a fuel source that the liver produces when we break down fat. Evolutionarily speaking, we would produce ketones in a fasted state, when food was scarce.

Benefits of the Ketogenic Diet

There are plenty of health benefits of a ketogenic diet, but the benefits for the brain are particularly striking.

The ketogenic diet was originally designed to help decrease the frequency of seizures in patients with epilepsy. The diet has been studied to be especially effective in children and adult patients who have refractory seizures (seizures that do not respond well to anti-seizure medications). (1,2,7)

There is evidence that ketone bodies not only act as molecules for fuel, but also act as cell signaling molecules. These signaling molecules have strong anti-inflammatory actions and have been shown to reduce oxidative stress in the brain. (4)

Ketones have been shown to help reduce the damage that free radicals create in brain cells. Ketone bodies also support the vagal nerve, therefore increasing parasympathetic tone.

When our bodies are under parasympathetic tone, we are in a more rested and relaxed state. Having better parasympathetic tone can lead to stress reduction, improved sleep, and improved mood.

A ketogenic diet (or any diet that mimics a fasting state) increases levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF is responsible for increasing connections between neurons in the brain. Low BDNF levels have been associated with neurodegenerative disorders.

In animal models, a ketogenic diet has been shown to decrease amyloid beta plaques, which have been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. (3) Furthermore, the administration of ketones have been shown to improve memory in humans with Alzheimer’s disease. (5)

Additionally, in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, the brain has trouble utilizing glucose for fuel. Therefore, switching its energy source to ketones results in improved cognition.

There is also some evidence that a Ketogenic diet may have therapeutic value in treating the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Researchers usually study Parkinson’s disease with an animal model that utilizes the neurotoxin MPTP.

They use this neurotoxin to create injury to the brain that creates symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease. Beta-hydroxybutyrate was shown in mouse models to decrease the toxicity that MPTP created. (8) Effects of a ketogenic diet are promising in some case studies and human studies with smaller sample sizes. (6)

It is evident that a ketogenic diet can also benefit patients that experience stroke or traumatic brain injury (TBI). The destruction of brain cells that results from strokes and brain injury involves cell death from glutamate. It is thought that Ketone bodies can actually prevent cellular death in the brain in cases of high glutamate. (9)

Overall, it is clear in the research that a ketogenic diet is not simply a means of weight loss, but a powerful therapeutic tool that can be utilized to help treat many different brain-based disorders.

Learn More About Ketogenic Diets

For more information about the benefits of a ketogenic diet for the brain, give us at a call at 858-228-4188 or email us at Spark@MySparkHealth.com.

Spark Health is conveniently located so we can serve patients in San Diego, and all of North County such as Del Mar, Solana Beach, Rancho Santa Fe, Encinitas, Carlsbad, Escondido, San Marcos, and Poway.

Thank you,
The Spark Team

REFERENCES

1. Paoli et al. Beyond weight loss: A review of the therapeutic uses of very-low-carbohydrate (ketogenic) diets. Eur. J. Clin. Nutr. 2013;67:789-796.

2. Kossoff et al. Ketogenic diets: An update for child neurologists. J. Child Neurol. 2009;24:979-988.

3. Van der Auwera et al. A ketogenic diet reduces amyloid beta 40 and 42 in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. Nutrition & Metabolism. 2005 2:28

4. Gasior et al. Neuroprotective and disease-modifying effects of the Ketogenic diet. Behav Pharmacol. 2006: 17(5-6):431-439

5. Reger, et al. Effects of B-hydroxybutyrate on cognition in memory-impaired adults. Neurobiology of Aging 25 (2004) 311-314

6. T. B. VanItallie et al. Treatment of Parkinson disease with diet-induced hyperketonemia: A feasibility study. Neurology Feb 2005, 64 (4) 728-730

7. Freeman JM et al. The efficacy of the ketogenic diet – 1998: a prospective evaluation of intervention in 150 children. Pediatrics. 1998;102:1358-1363.

8. Tieu K et al. Beta hydroxybutyrate rescues mitochondrial respiration and mitigates features of Parkinson disease. J Clin Invest. 2003;112:892-901

9. Stafstrom CE, Rho JM. The ketogenic diet as a treatment paradigm for diverse neurological disorders. Front. Pharmacol., 09 April 2012

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